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Old 17-09-18, 04:48   #1
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Question Mark The Black Panthers Still in Prison After 46 years >W

The Black Panthers Still in Prison After 46 years, Will They Ever Be Set Free?

The Guardian US, by Ed Pilkington, 16 Sep 2018

Antoinette Russell vividly recalls the first time she was led to believe she would finally meet her father as a free man. He called her up on a prison phone, his voice shaking with excitement, and told her: “I’m coming home!”

That was 17 years ago. Since then, every two years, she’s been put through the same agonizing drill. “He’d call saying the same thing: ‘I’m coming home,’” she said, speaking at her home in Montgomery, Alabama.

“It got to the point where I said, ‘Daddy, I don’t want to hear that any more. I get my hopes up thinking you’re going to be released and then you’re not. It kills me every time.’”

A thousand miles away in Deer Park, Long Island, Diane Piagentini is trapped in exactly the same traumatic cycle, connected to the same man. “Every two years the Band-Aid gets ripped off your heart and you have to recall everything that happened and play it over and over again,” she said.

The unbearable pain felt by these two women may bear comparison, but there the similarities end: they have nothing in common when it comes to their desires about what should happen to him.

Russell hopes her father will be given his freedom. Piagentini prays he rots in his cell until the end of time.

“He needs to stay in prison for the rest of his life. When you commit a heinous crime like that, you deserve only the death penalty.”

The focus of both women’s attention is Antoinette Russell’s father, Jalil Muntaqim, who is known in maximum security prison by his birth name, Anthony Bottom, and ID number, 77A4283.

A former member of the Black Panther party and its underground wing the Black Liberation Army, he has spent almost 47 years in prison for his part in the 1971 murders of two New York city police officers. One of those officers was Joseph Piagentini, Diane’s husband.

Muntaqim is one of 19 black radicals, including two women, who are still imprisoned 40 or more years after they were arrested for violent acts related to the black liberation struggle. Next year the longest-serving inmate, Romaine “Chip” Fitzgerald, will have been locked up for half a century. The oldest, Sundiata Acoli, is 81.

Since 2000, a further 10 black radicals have succumbed to ill health and died in prison.

The 19 incarcerated militants were all part of the 1970s black revolutionary movement. They fought for black power, they were convicted of killing for it – though many profess their innocence – and today they are still imprisoned for it.

As they grow older, and the length of their incarceration ticks up, the ethical battle over what to do with these men and women grows ever more intense.

Just last week there was a stunning development, reported here for the first time: Robert Seth Hayes, like Muntaqim a former member of the Black Panthers and Black Liberation Army was released last Tuesday, aged 69, from the same New York maximum security prison.

Hayes had been imprisoned for 45 years for the murder of a New York city transit officer, Sidney Thompson, during an encounter at a Bronx station in 1973. He was convicted and sentenced to 25 years to life.

He became eligible for parole in 1998, but every two years he was told the same thing: despite a clean prison record, he remained a threat to society in the eyes of the parole board. It was only on his 11th attempt, 20 years later and with his health rapidly failing, that he convinced them he was worthy of rehabilitation.

Hayes’ freedom further ups the ante, forcing authorities in New York and across the US to consider fundamental questions:

> is there such a thing as rehabilitation for those found guilty of killing police officers in the cause of black revolution? Do they have to renounce their politics to merit release? Or is the US criminal justice system singling them out for especially harsh treatment and never-ending captivity as political prisoners, as the men and women themselves contend?

Over the past two years I have interviewed eight black liberationists who have all experienced prolonged prison time.Through prison visits, letters and emails, the militants told surprisingly similar stories of how they had coped spending almost their entire adult lives in cells and of the long road to an elusive freedom. Six are among the 19 who remain incarcerated to this day.

One of the most striking aspects of their stories is the enduring passion they all express for the cause of black liberation. Their belief in the nobility of the struggle against injustice is undiluted and undulled.

Take Jalil Muntaqim, 66. Under the terms of his sentence for double homicide he has been entitled to be considered for parole every two years since 2002. This August the cycle comes round again: he will go before a parole board for the ninth time to plead for his release.

He will tell the panel of his remorse towards the families of the police officers who died. He will tell them of the remorse he feels too towards his own family, whom he has deprived of his company for 46 years.

But he will not renounce his politics.

As he put it during a two-hour interview in Sullivan correctional facility in upstate New York: “If you understand the oppression that black people have suffered in this country, no one should have any regrets for having been identified as a revolutionary. I have no regrets about that.”

The Black Panthers, who officially ceased to exist in 1982, seem to have become posthumously fashionable in the past couple of years. The opening sequence of the smash-hit movie Black Panther is set in a public basketball court in downtown Oakland, in a strong allusion to the foundation of the party in the same location in 1966. Beyoncé stunned the nation with her 2016 Super Bowl homage replete with black leather jackets, berets and raised fists.

Behind this veneer of popular flirtation with the Panthers, there is very little public discussion about the 1970s upheaval and its aftermath. Popular understanding is scanty about how the Panthers spread from its Oakland beginnings, spawning 70 chapters across the States; how it openly challenged the brutality shown by police forces towards African Americans in the inner cities; how it developed a sophisticated social program that included food banks and even elementary schools; and how in turn it provoked a furious response from the federal government and FBI that led to numerous gunfights, raids, deep surveillance, dirty tricks and the eventual disbandment of the party in 1982. Even less is known about the many Panther activists who were imprisoned.

In short, the Black Panther uniform in black leather might now be de rigueur, but there is precious little interest shown in the prison uniforms of the former Panthers behind bars.

he journey that led me to dive into the lives of incarcerated former Black Panthers began in 2015 with Albert Woodfox, a member of the so-called Angola Three who had the distinction at that time of being America’s longest-standing solitary confinement prisoner. He had been locked up in a cell alone almost without a break for 43 years.

Together with a fellow inmate, Herman Wallace, Woodfox had set up a branch of the Black Panthers in Angola, the notorious maximum-security penitentiary in Louisiana built upon the grounds of an old cotton-picking plantation. Its name was derived from the African country where the plantation owners obtained their slaves.

When Woodfox was sent to Angola in 1971 for robbery, the prison was entirely segregated, with a wing for white prisoners and a separate wing for African American prisoners. The guards were exclusively white.

In one of the sharpest examples of the unbroken thread between slavery and modern mass incarceration, black prisoners were used as a cheap supply of farm labor. Every day the black inmates were assembled into chain gangs, taken into the fields around the penitentiary – the same fields that had belonged to the plantation – and made to work under the blazing sun.

Picking Cotton.

Woodfox and Wallace began organizing other black inmates through the Black Panther chapter to protest against this modern form of slavery. It didn’t sit well with the prison authorities.

A year later, they were both accused of murdering a prison guard named Brent Miller, who had been stabbed to death amid a prison riot. Considerable forensic evidence was gathered at the murder scene, but none of it matched either of them, including a bloody fingerprint found on a wall.

Yet they were still found guilty by all-white juries and sentenced to life without parole. Immediately upon sentencing, Woodfox and Wallace were placed in isolation cells, there to remain for the next four decades.


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